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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer on the politics of Michigan school mask mandates

A group of students wearing masks look at a book on a desk together
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Many Michigan districts will start school next week. Many parents who had hoped the coming in-person school year would be a step toward normalcy now have serious concerns about the COVID-19 delta variant and the safety of their kids.

One of those parents is Detroit Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer. She joined Michigan Radio's Morning Edition to talk about the politics of mask mandates and vaccines as the school year begins.

Kaffer has a son who is 10 and too young to be vaccinated. She's written about how hard it was for him during virtual school, being out of the classroom and away from friends. Despite the concerns about the delta variant, Kaffer says her son had good experiences with masking at summer camps, and she's counting on more of the same in school. 

"A lot of superintendents and school officials really feel like they're on their own here. Many of them don't really feel qualified to be making these public health decisions."

"I am still cautiously hopeful about school this fall. It's not going to be normal, but I think it's going to be more normal than the last year and a half, and that's positive."

Kaffer lives in a district where there is a school mask mandate, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has not issued a statewide mandate for K-12 schools. That's despite the fact that Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun has recommended one, as has nearly every public health agency and organization nationwide.

"A lot of superintendents and school officials really feel like they're on their own here. They had been accustomed to more deliberate pandemic orders from the state. Many of them don't really feel qualified to be making these public health decisions and they would like more guidance," Kaffer said.

"Of course, some of this is political. You've got a lot of angry anti-masking parents who have been very good at dominating the conversation. I think you have a much larger middle section of parents who are really for sensible COVID mitigation measures and want their kids in school. I think parents like that kind of avoid this public conversation, kind of like a newspaper comment section. They don't want to hop into the fray because it's often very unpleasant." 

Some parents feel like the school year is putting them in another impossible COVID-19 situation, choosing between risks and rewards. But Kaffer remains more optimistic. 

"Last year, some schools were open for in-person all year, and we learned that schools were not the centers of spread that many of us had feared. I think we've learned what works. And if we do those things, I don't think it has to be impossible. The problem is that ... most districts are not requiring mask mandates right now," she said.

"What I'm hearing from parents really differs wildly based on what sort of district you're in. If you're a district where there are mask mandates, where they've been very frank about wanting teachers to be vaccinated, where they're talking about mitigation measures, I think there's a greater degree of confidence. But parents who are in school districts where there are no mass mandates are freaking out." 

Read more from Nancy Kaffer in the Detroit Free Press:

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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